Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

For really important inventions, once is enough

with 4 comments

Take language, for example. It’s probably the most significant invention of all, since it supported the development of humans from the animals we had been—and it seems to have been invented only once, with all other languages descendant of that first ur-language.

Agriculture is a big invention, but that was invented at least three times (Meso-America, Southeast Asia, and the Fertile Crescent) and some say it was invented as many as seven times.

The wheel is another one-time invention. Although the wheel was known in pre-Columbus, it was merely a toy. I imagine the wheel was not considered seriously in the Americans because the mountainous spine of North and South America, the location of the Aztecs, Incas, and other great civilizations, meant that pack animals were used extensively, especially since the Americans had the good fortune of possessing a pack animal amenable to domestication: the llama. (In southern Africa, pickings were slim: the zebra, for example, cannot be domesticated and in fact is extremely dangerous.) Pack animals work well on mountain trails, but wheels require a nice flat surface: roads, in the case of mountains.

So wheels were invented in Assyria by people familiar with the broad, flat plains of the steppes, where the wheel was highly developed for the war machine of the day: chariots. No roads required in the steppes, and much use made of the wheel, with the idea spreading quickly.

So I think the wheel, too, is a one-time invention. Those are the big ones.

Religion is a big idea, but it’s clear that it was invented pretty much by all peoples.

Written by Leisureguy

3 July 2013 at 11:48 am

Posted in Technology

4 Responses

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  1. I wouldn’t describe language as an invention. There is not much that can be said about how language came about that goes beyond speculation. There is no certainty even as to whether language developed once or several times independently. The article you linked to talks about number of phonemes being inversely related to travel distance from some hypothetical point of origin, but number of phonemes isn’t a real measure of diversity. (First off, the number of phonemes used in a language can both increase and decrease over time.) A real measure of linguistic diversity would be the density of mutually-incomprehensible languages, but even this has the problem that languages can go extinct. So, the correlation between travel distance and phoneme count they discovered is probably just a coincidence from which no firm conclusions can be drawn.


    Brian B.

    4 July 2013 at 1:01 am

  2. Language is not an invention?! I’m astonished. Can you explain that? Language came from natural sources? I am trying to understand how language is not a creation of the human mind, and I simply cannot. What, for you, does “language” mean?

    I understand that you do not find the argument persuasive, but I think it brings up an interesting pattern that requires some language. The minor increase/decrease in number of phonemes is a matter of “noise”, but if you look at the overall pattern, the trend is clear. I do agree that this finding is not conclusive, but we have to deal with what we have: we are not going to find a lexicon of the first language, after all.

    The idea that language was invented independently multiple times seems even more speculative. Of course, it is probably fuzzy: warning cries, for example, only gradually acquiring the characteristics of words. But language creation is early enough that it occurred before the great diaspora out of Africa—and thus at a time when the protohumans were a very small population and not widely dispersed. And once the idea was around, it would naturaly evolve in different directions as groups lost contact.

    At any rate, I agree that a certain amount of speculation is involved, but we do have evidence of a pattern that is consistent with and supportive of the speculation.



    4 July 2013 at 5:14 am

  3. My reason for wanting to avoid the word “invention” for describing the process by which humans developed language is because of the image of some clever person or group of people deliberately trying to develop some tool to solve problem. My guess is that language developed over generations, and that many innovations between stages of its development from silence to simple vocalizations like grunts and cries to complex series of vocalizations to words and grammar probably (This is not a complete list of stages in its development.) probably involved animal-like instinct rather than deliberate thought. It probably wasn’t invented in a manner at all similar to things that we typically label inventions like the telephone, radio, and computer.

    I am not arguing for languages having developed multiple times; I only think that there is no evidence to say whether it happened once or multiple times. Again, I think the article that you linked is not evidence of anything about the origin of languages. They try to claim that phoneme count is a measure of diversity but it isn’t; the number of phonemes used in a language can rise and fall over time due to sound change. True diversity would involve measuring the density of different languages, but that has the problem of not accounting for language extinction. For example, we know for example that European languages have supplanted numerous indigenous languages in the Americas so linguistic diversity has been lost.

    Actually, considering my guess that the development of language took place across many generations and over probably uncountable small stages, I would also guess that there is not a point that you can isolate as saying “Here is where humans invented language from simple vocalizations”. As such, it’s not so unlikely that development diverged at an intermediate stage between simple grunts and cries and full language.

    Really, the only tool invented so far for scientifically determining whether or not two language share a common origin is the comparative method. But the comparative method is only about to go back so far. The claims of people who say that they comparisons show the existence super-families like Nostratic should be taken with a grain of salt. Claims about a single proto-World language should be given even more skepticism.


    Brian B.

    4 July 2013 at 10:03 am

  4. I see your point: I wouldn’t call (say) that the city is an “invention,” however much a human creation it is. Same would go for language: the result of many individuals sharing and contributing and using—indeed, once it gets going, the language itself seems to take over as the memes kick in and start to percolate. In fact, now that I think about it, the standard terminology refers to “evolved” vs. “constructed” languages (e.g., Esperanto), with the latter having more a claim to “invention.” Still, language, whether evolved or constructed, is an artifact: i.e., the work of man, not the product of nature (except in the loose sense in which everything that exists is part of “nature”—the beaver’s dam, city skyscrapers, and computer technology. But this is a different meaning of nature, meaning “the universe,” more or less).

    It’s certainly true that for evolved languages the process is probably as messy as evolution of lifeforms, where things get very oddly connected, as we’re beginning to learn, with DNA snippets shared among species through various means. And, given the complexity of language, I would imagine that the course of its development was complex. Still, at the time language first arose, humanity was not widespread or numerous, so as language developed—that is, as the idea of language began to be put into practice beyond saying, “Snake!” or the like, everyone would probably share a roughly similar collection of language pieces, which of course diverge as the group grows and spreads. So my supposed uniqueness is largely a factor of the extremely early appearance of language in human evolution (and indeed of how language drove human evolution in certain directions, much as did the use of tools: for the latter, those with greater fine-muscle control had a survival advantage, and for the former, those who could best use their voices and minds and communicate better were similarly selected).

    What we know we did not experience was language arising after the great diaspora from Africa: at that point, language was, I believe, already firmly established and human culture was well begun. The next big step was writing, but that had to await the invention (as it were) of cities, where some had leisure enough to work on things other than finding food. That’s when we got the wheel, for example: not some lone inventor who lived in caves, but a city-bred people.



    4 July 2013 at 10:47 am

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